The Coffin Works and Back to Backs museums in Birmingham

The British Museum might have eight million items but that’s just too overwhelming for me. Instead I prefer small museums with a dedicated focus. That’s why the Coffin Works in Birmingham made it on to my UK bucket list. I recently visited the Coffin Works and another heritage attraction, the Back to Backs. Was it worth the bucket list entry?

Coffin Works

The Coffin Works museum is around 15 minutes walk from Birmingham New Street railway station. Along the way you’ll pass shiny new buildings, cranes and roadworks. All reflecting the huge changes to Birmingham’s landscape over the last few years.

Newman Brothers coffin works, Birmingham
Newman Brothers coffin works, Birmingham

From 1894 until 1998 the Newman Brothers manufactured coffin furniture from a factory on Fleet Street. After it closed the last owner, Joyce Green, fought to turn it into a museum. Her dream was realised and visitors can now discover the story of the company that once made coffin handles and decorations (not coffins!) for luminaries such as Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.

Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin Works, Birmingham

Entrance to the Coffin Works is by guided tour only. The tour starts outside in the courtyard and takes in the stamp shop, warehouse, office and sewing room. Our guide, Cornellius, talked us through the different jobs carried out in each area and demonstrated how some of the machinery worked. One thing came across loud and clear; health and safety wasn’t paramount in those days!

Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin Works, Birmingham

What made the tour come alive was the stories of those who had worked at the Coffin Works. From Mr Ray, the gentleman who worked as the die sinker through to Diamond Lil who read tea leaves and worked in the plating shop.

Coffin handles, Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin handles, Coffin Works, Birmingham

In the warehouse we discovered shelves full of original stock. Cornellius explained that from the late 1960s all coffin furniture used in cremations had to be combustible so plastic fittings became commonplace. This was one factor in the eventual closure of the factory as the mark up on plastic fittings couldn’t compete with the metal furnishings.

The office was home to Joyce Green who joined the company, aged 18, as a secretary and eventually became the managing director and final owner. Much to the disdain of several male workers! Joyce had to contend with striking workers, a changing business climate and the eventual closure of the factory. Sadly she never got to see the opening of this museum but I’m sure she’d be happy with the results.

Coffin paraphernalia, Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin paraphernalia, Coffin Works, Birmingham

In the sewing room we learnt about shrouds and linings. A row of sewing machines lined the wall next to the windows, to ensure the seamstresses were able to work in good light.

However, pride of place went to a wedding dress made from shroud materials. Sheila, a seamstress, was too poor to buy her own wedding dress. Instead she created one out of stolen offcuts of lace and satin, coming in early to obtain the materials and then hiding them around her belly during the working day. Not many people get married in a shroud!

Sewing room, Coffin Works
Sewing room, Coffin Works

The tour ended in a small room with pictures and clippings from famous funerals. Although we’d only been onsite an hour or so it was an engaging and entertaining look at a business I knew nothing about, it definitely deserved its place on my bucket list.

Back to Backs

From the Coffin Works we hotfooted it across town to our next destination, the Back to Backs. These were a type of housing, built around a courtyard, once common in Birmingham and many other industrial towns in the 19th Century.

Back to Backs, Birmingham
Back to Backs, Birmingham

The houses at Inge Street are the last remaining courtyard of back to back houses in Birmingham. The National Trust now owns these properties and has renovated them to show what they might have looked like during different time periods. It makes a lovely change to see the National Trust preserving working class homes rather than stately houses.

Inside back to backs house, Birmingham
Inside back to backs house, Birmingham

Again, entry is by guided tour, bookable in advance, so you’ll need to be organised!

The tour starts outside, with a geography lesson. As I’m not particularly familiar with Birmingham it was helpful to get some bearings, even if I didn’t always know where the guide was referring to. We then walked through an alleyway into the courtyard and on into the houses.

Once inside we heard stories of the residents who lived there. We learnt about the lives of an 1840s Jewish toy maker, an 1870s glass eye maker and a 1930s lock maker. The houses are decorated as per the time periods. Possessions were minimal and space at a premium; be aware of low doorways and steep and winding staircases!

Bedroom, Birmingham Back to backs
Bedroom, Birmingham Back to backs

One of the most sobering rooms is the one which hasn’t been renovated. The other rooms all look as if they’d provide a level of comfort, commensurate with the times, but in the original room the ceilings, windows and walls are in very poor state of repair. We were shown photographs of the houses shortly before renovation; I wouldn’t have wanted to live there!

Inside George Saunders tailor shop, Birmingham back to backs
Inside George Saunders tailor shop, Birmingham back to backs

The final house was the shop of George Saunders, a tailor, who came from St Kitts in 1958. It was interesting to learn about his life in Birmingham and the difficulties he faced as a Caribbean immigrant. The shop is kitted out in 1970s style, adorned with half finished suits and clothing patterns. 

Outside in the courtyard are the shared toilets and laundry room. The laundry room contains a mangle; I remember using one of these after swimming lessons at secondary school! Indeed there were a few items on the tour which were familiar to me from my grandparents’ house.

The laundry, Back to Backs, Birmingham
The laundry, Back to Backs, Birmingham

After the tour finished we spent another 15 minutes in the National Trust traditional sweet shop trying to decide on some treats for the train journey home. There was just too much choice!

I’m happy to say that the Back to Backs tour perfectly complemented our earlier visit to the Coffin Works. I highly recommend both museums as they give a fantastic insight life in Birmingham over the last century.

A wander around Cotswold Sculpture Park, Gloucestershire

I’m a sucker for quirky attractions and the Cotswold Sculpture Park fits the description perfectly. It’s a fabulous place to visit even if, like me, you’re not particularly into art.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail - with added robin
Cotswold Sculpture Trail – with added robin

Cotswold Sculpture Park

Upon arrival you’re given a leaflet detailing the sculptures and their prices. There are over 150 sculptures, created by more than 70 artists. The sculptures vary in size and sculpture medium; from Portland limestone to scrap metal. There really is a sculpture to please everyone, whether you prefer modern or traditional, abstract or figurative.

Cotswold Sculpture Park
Cotswold Sculpture Park

I’ve visited a couple of sculpture trails previously which have felt like outdoor high end art galleries. This trail was different, a fun wander around ten acres of woodland and garden. The grounds are a little rough and ready but that made it more enjoyable for me. Think wildlife friendly garden rather than manicured lawns and perfect borders!

The Ostrich, David Hartland, Cotswold Sculpture Trail
The Ostrich, David Hartland

The park is owned by David Hartland, who is also a sculptor. His pieces, mostly made from scrap metal, are instantly recognisable and include the Morris Minor on the tower at the entrance. The owner’s sculptures are the only permanent pieces and are not for sale. The other sculptures are either sold or returned to the artist at the end of the season.

Cotswold Sculpture Park
Cotswold Sculpture Park

I think we managed to spot all of the sculptures. Some blend in well into their surroundings. Others stick out like a sore thumb! It would have been good to learn more about the sculptures and artists as we visited them although I later discovered many of their profiles are on the website.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

The sculpture park is Tardis like, there is so much to see. We reached as far as the toilet building (beware, it’s the opposite end from the entrance) and assumed we’d seen almost everything. How wrong we were! Leave yourself a good couple of hours to see everything.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

We all had our favourites but I loved this sculpture. Not sure it would really fit my pocket sized back garden but I’d snap it up if I had a spare acre.

One other sculpture which garnered a lot of attention was a bronze statue of Icarus by Nicola Godden. It was superb, yours for just £33,000!

Cotswold Sculpture Park
Cotswold Sculpture Park

The sculpture prices ranged from £20 for a robin to an eye watering £60,000  for a bear made out of galvanised chicken wire. Most pieces were in the hundreds or low thousands range. Whilst I admired many of them I think they probably look at their best in a woodland setting, not a small town garden.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

After you’ve finished head to the onsite cafe, The Poppin Tearoom, which serves hot and cold snacks and drinks. I highly recommend sitting outside and enjoying coffee and cake if the weather allows. It’s a great way to round off your visit.

Cotswold Sculpture Trail
Cotswold Sculpture Trail

More info:

The Cotswold Sculpture Park is in Somerford Keynes near Cirencester. It’s open from April to September, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, entrance fee applicable. No dogs or picnics allowed onsite.

Campsite review: Thistledown Farm, Nympsfield, Gloucs

I’m not going to beat around the bush. Thistledown, an organic farm on the western edge of the Cotswolds, makes it onto my list of favourite ever campsites.

Thistledown pond and cafe
Thistledown pond and cafe

That said, if you prefer organised entertainment and extensive facilities it’s probably not the site for you. Read on to find out more.

The negatives?

You need to know…

Wheelbarrows for your luggage, Thistledown Farm
Wheelbarrows for your luggage, Thistledown Farm

No cars are allowed on the pastures, yay! Depending on where you camp it’s a 5-10 minute steep walk downhill with your gear. There are wheelbarrows to borrow. Or, for £5, you can have your gear transported to your chosen pitch in a buggy.

Compost toilet, Thistledown Farm
Compost toilet, Thistledown Farm

There are no flushing toilets. It’s compost only if you’re camping in the pastures. Three simple rules – men and boys must sit, you add a handful of wood chips after a poo and put the lid down after you’ve finished.

There are event style portaloos in the elderflower orchard (where cars are also allowed) if you really cannot cope.

Our camping spot, Thistledown Farm
Our camping spot, Thistledown Farm

There are no electrical hook ups. This doesn’t bother me one jot as we’ve never needed it. At least not until the teen discovered hair straighteners.

If you’re not fazed by the above then you will love Thistledown Farm. We did! As for the positives. Well, where do I start?

The space

We camped over a Bank Holiday weekend. The site was rammed (as described by the chap who works there). You can see what I mean below. Hardly room to move.

Pasture 3, Thistledown Farm campsite
Pasture 3, Thistledown Farm campsite

There are three different camping areas, split between the car free pastures and the elderflower orchard. There are no designated pitches, campsite rules state you should leave six metres between tents. Yes, you read that correctly, six metres. Even though the 70 acres of woodland and meadow could accommodate many more tents the owners wisely choose to restrict the numbers that can camp.

Thistledown tractor
Thistledown tractor

For children there’s a tractor. Marshmallows toasted over the camp fire. A stream. Kunekune pigs and rare breed sheep. And rope swings in the wood. There’s no artificial playground. Why would you need it?

Campfire at Thistledown Farm
Campfire at Thistledown Farm

Camp fires are encouraged. Bring your own wood or buy a bag on site (£7.50). Just don’t collect it from the woods; it’s a habitat!

Remember to look up from your fire too. Once your eyes have acclimatised you’ll be amazed by the stars. The lack of light pollution allows you to spot many more stars than usual.

The cafe

Thistledown cafe
Thistledown cafe

There’s a fabulous cafe on site (but do book in advance). It’s open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. It also offers  pizza on Friday and Saturday evenings from April to October. It’s not cheap but the food is mostly organic, local and incredibly tasty.

Pizza at Thistledown cafe
Pizza at Thistledown cafe

Indeed I ate the best pizza of my life. A sour dough base, topped with spiced butternut squash puree, caramelised onions, goats cheese and wild garlic pesto. The pesto, made with fresh leaves from the wood, was out of this world. If it’s in season (April) when you visit you must try some!

The wildlife

Bluebell wood at Thistledown Farm
Bluebell wood at Thistledown Farm

The camping pastures are surrounded by mixed native woodland. In spring bluebells and wild garlic carpet the ground. Trails lead through the wood but get a map from reception otherwise you’ll probably end up following a badger track.

Thistledown Farm pond at sunset
Thistledown Farm pond at sunset

The whole site is set up to encourage wildlife. It’s a receptor (rehoming) site for slow worms and grass snakes. The pond by the cafe is full of newts.

There are badger sets throughout the wood; tidy your food away at night to stop the badgers helping themselves. Tawny owls might keep you awake; the dawn chorus will probably wake you up!

The sunrise

Thistledown Farm pond at sunrise
Thistledown Farm pond at sunrise

Sunrise is incredible. I’d got up early to look for badgers, but not early enough it seems. Instead I walked up to the pond and stone circle to watch the most magical sunrise. Aside from three geese and a couple of newly arrived swallows I was the only one there (well, it was 6am on a Sunday morning).

Thistledown stone circle at sunrise
Thistledown stone circle at sunrise

Later we ate breakfast in the early morning sun, watching the birds flitting between trees. Butterflies were out enjoying the warm weather. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Breakfast time, Thistledown Farm
Breakfast time, Thistledown Farm

We did tear ourselves away from the campsite as there’s plenty to see locally, including Stroud farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, Woodchester Mansion (walkable from the campsite) and the viewpoint at Coaley Peak. All coming soon in another blog post!

More info:

  • We paid £68 for a family of four for two nights camping in the 3rd pasture. It’s cheaper to camp in the elderflower orchard, but for the full experience head to the pastures. Further details and online booking can be found on the Thistledown Farm website.

Two days exploring the Dorset coast from Bridport to Charmouth

There are more than 80 miles of Dorset coastline, much of it with World Heritage Status. We spent a couple of days exploring the eight mile section between Charmouth and West Bay, an area packed full of fossils, great walks and spectacular views.

West Bay

Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast

Our first stop was West Bay, the village made famous by the TV drama, Broadchurch.

We visited out of season, early on a grey Monday morning. Although many places were open the village felt a little ‘closed for winter’. We mooched around the harbour, got buffeted by the wind on the pier and then lost ourselves in a huge building full of crafts and antiques.

However, it’s the cliffs which West Bay is famous for so, once we’d seen the village, we headed towards the beach and its towering golden sandstone cliffs.

Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast

Our walk started, as expected,with a steep uphill climb to blow the cobwebs away. Once up top we enjoyed a fabulous walk along a stretch of the rollercoaster Dorset coast. This area isn’t without its dangers. A short while after we visited a huge rockfall temporarily closed both the beach and the cliff path. After seeing the photographs it’s a sobering thought that we were walking beside the collapsed cliff section. Do visit, but abide by all warning notices.

Walking back down to West Bay
Walking back down to West Bay

We didn’t walk far. The weather wasn’t conducive to staying on the cliffs and we had a longer walk planned for the afternoon so we soon retraced our steps to the village to find a cafe for lunch. If it’s a nice day, and you fancy seafood for lunch, I’d suggest checking out the kiosks by the harbour. However it was too cold for us to mill around outside and most were still closed for winter so we opted for indoor comfort at West Bay Tea Rooms. This was a great choice with friendly service and good size portions.

Golden Cap walk

After lunch we drove over to Seatown, our starting point for a walk to the summit of Golden Cap. This is a flat topped hill that looked distinctly un-golden when we arrived at Seatown car park. Obscured by heavy rain I decided it best to shelter in the car whilst we waited for the rain to blow over. If you’re without a car and looking for shelter the alternative is a quick half in the Anchor Inn. Although you might be tempted to stay longer than strictly necessary…

Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk
Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk

At 191 metres Golden Cap is the highest point on the south coast. We followed the 4 mile AA Golden Cap in Trust route. As per our morning walk it started with a steep schlep up to the summit. The heavy rain had made it much muddier and slippier than I’d envisaged. Although when the sun came out a few minutes later all was forgiven. The route to the top took us around half an hour or so; by then we’d jettisoned our outer layers as spring appeared!

Muddy route up Golden Cap
Muddy route up Golden Cap

On a clear day it is evidently possible to see as far as Dartmoor from the summit. Whenever facts like this are pointed out to me I’m always disappointed as I can never see as far as some people obviously can. I could certainly see Portland Bill and, in the opposite direction, Lyme Regis. But not Dartmoor.

Route to Golden Cap summit
Route to Golden Cap summit

Our route continued down the far side, passing the ruins of St Gabriel’s Church. There are some fabulously located National Trust holiday cottages here if you fancy getting away from it all (or as much as you can in Dorset). These buildings are all that remain of Stanton St Gabriel, a village deserted in the 18th Century after residents moved to nearby towns for work.

Golden Cap trig point
Golden Cap trig point

The rest of the route took us on a tour of green and quiet lanes. We cut back beneath Langdon Hill, which is still part of the National Trust estate and offers an alternative starting point for the Golden Cap ascent. As you return to Seatown the views of the Dorset coast return too, it’s even more beautiful when the sun is shining!

Charmouth fossil hunt

The following day saw us in Charmouth, exploring a stretch of Dorset coastline marketed as the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs and beaches are full of fossils that reveal the Earth’s history, from prehistoric Triassic deserts to tropical Jurassic sea. Fossil hunting in Charmouth has long featured on my UK bucket list so I was looking forward to our next activity, a walk with a fossil expert.

We’d booked a walk with fossilwalks.com; at just £5 per head it was excellent value. They run most days during the school holidays or alternatively you can book a rather more expensive private walk. Whatever you choose, book early.

Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach
Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach

The walk starts with a half hour introductory talk about where to find the fossils, what to look out for and what you might find. Chris, our guide, passed around samples of the different fossils for us to handle. We also learnt how to use our hammers correctly (additional cost, book in advance through the guide).

After our briefing we set off to find fossils on the beach. This is a key safety point. Fossil hunting takes place on the beach, not the cliffs! I was sceptical at first to think that fossils would just be lying around on the beach. That was until I found my first ammonite on the sandy shore. Followed by further ammonites, belemnites and, what I’ll call, stones with fossils in. Perhaps not exciting finds in geological terms but I was happy with my haul.

View from Charmouth beach
View from Charmouth beach

Charmouth Heritage Centre

After the walk we visited Charmouth Heritage Centre which houses some larger fossil finds information about the area’s history and geology. Entrance is free (although do leave a donation) and highly recommended; they also offer guided walks and hammer hire.

If you haven’t managed to find any fossils on the beach there’s also a fossil shop next door. Shush, no-one need ever know you’ve bought one.

So, there you have it. Two days exploring the Dorset coast. I now need a few more months to explore the rest of it!

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